Three red lights in a triangle pattern, appearing to be not much bigger than the stars behind them, streaked across the night sky. When they abruptly stopped and hovered, my friends and I became wary and a bit anxious. We’d recently watched a TV special on a surge in UFO sightings, many of which included unexplained abductions of humans and animals, apparently so that extraterrestrial aliens might study and dissect them like we might disembowel a frog in science class.
When the lights abruptly sped in our direction we froze in place, each of us contemplating how to avoid becoming captives on a UFO death ship.
Back in the mid-1970s sightings of UFOs were not only common but also feared and revered. A book had come out in 1968 called “Chariots of the Gods” that suggested our world’s religions and science had been handed down by extraterrestrials who had visited our world at various times in the past, dispensing of critical scientific and spiritual truths along the way.
The book was so popular that it inspired a TV series called “In Search of …” in which the narrator, Leonard Nimoy, conducted investigations into controversial and paranormal activities, including UFO sightings, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, and it was these that filled our nightmares.
A few years later these fears would seem like benign and naive precursors to what would take their place. In 1978 the psycho-slasher film “Halloween” came out and spurred a sea change in the source of our collective fear — monsters, mutants and aliens were replaced mostly by insane white male characters who were devoid of morality and had a propensity for sadistic behavior directed toward scantily clad teenage victims.
But on that night as we looked up into the sky we held our breath with a mixture of abject terror and rapturous wonder. We were witnessing a real-live UFO sighting from the field behind our house off Zinfandel Lane in the sleepy Napa Valley.
School was going to start in a few days, and we’d been working feverishly, often late into the night, trying to complete our annual construction project: a stable underground fort in the empty field behind our homes. For years, along with other teams of preteens, we had dug what seemed miles of tunnels through the field, most of which quickly collapsed when some kid stepped through the dirt roof. Undaunted, we’d move to the next site and begin again, our repeated efforts resulting in a maze of discarded pits, making the scene look like a battle zone from a World War I movie set.
We’d been finishing up for the night when Todd had noticed the lights approaching from the south. When we saw them they looked like a small cluster of objects flying in tight formation, traveling along the ridgeline of the eastern hills, their movements too smooth and fluid to be an airplane.
“That is definitely an unidentified flying object,” said Todd. “A UFO.”
At the words UFO my heart began to race.
“Maybe they’re on a collecting mission,” said Steve.
I had dreamed for years of seeing an actual UFO, but now with the possibility of being sucked up into an alien’s spacecraft only to be dissected, I was having second thoughts.
“Stay still and maybe they won’t notice us,” Steve said, still looking up at the lights as they approached.
“What do you mean they won’t notice us?” said Todd incredulously. “They have infrared scanners and have probably been tracking us for hours.”
“My cousin reported seeing the same thing last night down in Napa,” said Chad. “And I hear there are four kids missing along with two cows, four sheep and a bunch of chickens.”
Why Chad hadn’t mentioned this before didn’t cross our minds, and the reference to an unnamed cousin’s report only added to the story’s credibility.
“They might be collecting humans and animals from the area to conduct studies,” said Todd.
“Sounds more like they are collecting groceries for dinner,” said Steve.
We all nodded in agreement. Around us the late-summer smells of dried grass and the first faint aromas of fermenting wine hung in the still, warm air.
We’d spent the summer digging and imagining what our lives would be like as eighth-graders, the last year before high school and then the broader world beyond. We didn’t talk about it, but we knew this was probably our last summer of digging in the field. We’d watched for years as the older kids drifted away from it, lured by what we imagined must be connected to the mysteries of being a teenager. But for that night we lay in the grass and looked up, our skin tanned, shoeless with thickly callused feet.
Above us the cluster of lights began to spin and then descend slowly.
“What the …” I stuttered.
Above us a buzzing sound had caused us to look up. The lights had grown and were now spinning faster as they descended more quickly, bringing with them a powerful wind.
Without a further word we each rose to our feet and looked at one another with determination and resolve. We each knew the rule: If one of us fell behind or was captured, then we were obligated to rescue our fallen friend at any cost.
In another few seconds all might be lost. I took a deep breath and prepared to let out a war cry before making a run for it, but when I tried to move, my feet seemed anchored to the ground, held by some unexplainable force. As my friends ran ahead I remained frozen, shielding my eyes from the wind that brought with it shards of dry grass and small pebbles that pelted my arms and legs. What happened next was another story.
Originally published in the St. Helena Star, August 2016